'Newsnight and Paxman are what the BBC is all about'
Peter Rippon reflects on his year as editor of the flagship news show. Matthew Bell reports
Sunday 06 December 2009
Apress officer sits in on our interview but there really isn't any need. Talking to Peter Rippon, editor of Newsnight and a self-confessed BBC "lifer", is like having a conversation with the spirit of the corporation itself, a confusion of public service and commercial ideologies. One minute he is defending Jeremy Paxman's £1m pay-packet, as he is "what the BBC should be about", the next he says the BBC must be held to account over its expenditure, admitting "We cost a lot of money".
It's been a year since Rippon, 44, took the reins at Newsnight, BBC2's flagship current affairs show, when Peter Barron quit to join Google. While Barron's departure wasn't unexpected – he was known to have bigger ambitions – Rippon's appointment was not immediately obvious, as he is better known in radio. In his years as editor of news show PM, Rippon was credited with turning the teatime programme around, significantly boosting its audience.
The switch to TV has been a challenge, not least as much of the technology has changed since he was last in television as "a grunt" in the late 1990s. "I'll admit it, the equipment they use now, I'm rubbish at it. But I don't need to know it intimately." And as editor, Rippon is not expected to twiddle knobs. He is there to provide vision, leadership and inspiration to the BBC's highly respected TV news show, which celebrates its 30th birthday next month.
As soon as he joined, Rippon had to implement the 20 per cent budget cuts being applied across BBC news. Not the best way to endear yourself to a new team. But while his predecessor is said to have changed the very first show he edited, Rippon prefers to give his producers a free rein. "I'm lucky to be working with a talented team. People who end up here are at the top of their game."
For the first six months, Rippon took stock and made no changes. Even now, there are no radical differences, although some say he has reduced the arts content. As part of the cuts, two culture reporters were made general reporters, and in May, he lost a science and an environment reporter too. It must be galling, I say, to lose reporters while Jeremy Paxman earns £1m. "I'm not going to engage on that because I don't want to pitch one part of my team against another," he replies.
To be fair, the presenters' salaries are beyond his control, and he says he doesn't even know what they are paid. "Jeremy is brilliant. For me he is priceless. He is what the BBC should be about. Why do people pay the licence fee? What do they want the BBC to be doing? If you ask those fundamental questions, I would say that Newsnight and Jeremy – what we do every night – is pretty valuable for the BBC."
Rippon's job is essentially a series of meetings with those below and above him, many about logistics and costs. Then there are the emails – "The bane of my life" – and the compliance forms. There's a lot of admin. He is rarely in the studio when the programme is broadcast at 10:30pm, "maybe once every couple of months, not enough really", but he is on call from his home in Maidenhead, where he lives with his wife and three children, from where he commutes on a motorbike. But it's a job he loves, he says, fun, challenging and a great privilege.
Newsnight Review, the half-hour culture show that follows the programme on Fridays, will be the first to be affected by dramatic changes. He reveals there will be fewer editions a year, but they will be slightly longer. Production will be transferred to Scotland in January, with Martha Kearney and Kirsty Wark presenting. Is he a fan of the arts? A long pause. "Yes I am. The reason I pause is that I've got three kids, I work here a lot, and I don't see a lot of art, I have to admit."
Rippon gets much more excited when we talk about social media, such as Twitter, and talks about "exploring online options" for Newsnight and "carrying on the conversation" online. It's a low blow, but I feel obliged to point out that he hasn't updated his blog since April. After much blustering, he says: "You're right, I probably should do more, but the terrible truth is I haven't got time." In any case, he adds, blogging has been a disappointment: "I was very excited about it when I started, expecting to have a sophisticated conversation, but a lot of the commenting has been disappointing. It's more like school yard graffiti."
The coming election is the next big project. He is already planning coverage and has decided against using a helicopter. "It's quite a useful way of getting round the country, but to use it as a device feels a bit hackneyed." And after the election? "I feel I'm on the foothills of what I need to do with Newsnight. I've muddled my way through to this point and I'll muddle my way on to wherever I go next."
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